Poisonous Pastime – Section Two: The Rambo Factor, “Slob Shooters,” and Other Sporting Curiosities

“I think if you plan it well enough, you won’t shoot up any more trees than you have to, and many trees recover from being shot if you move the station around. You just can’t shoot the trees to pieces. I have seen courses where the same shot was presented year after year; it actually looked like a forest fire or a nuclear blast had occurred.”

—William L. Poole, Director, Division of Recreation Shooting, Training and Ranges, National Rifle Association (October 1993) 

The gun industry and its surrogates publicly conjure shooting ranges as public palaces for old-fashioned family fun. But, shooting ranges attract or generate major problems (other than the health and environmental nuisances described in the preceding section) that make them unwelcome neighbors and downright dangerous sites. 

The “Rambo Factor”

Gary Anderson, the NRA’s executive director for general operations, coined the phrase the “Rambo factor” to describe one problem that modern shooting ranges (and their neighbors) face. His language was diplomatically phrased, but extraordinarily revealing, because it belies the notion that shooting ranges are mostly places where the gentry gather for controlled, precision marksmanship. On the contrary, the gentry more often just want some place to blast holes through things. Says Anderson: 

American shooting activities place a predominant emphasis on large caliber arms that can be fired rapidly. [emphasis in original] 

  • If you look at the key words in arms and ammunition advertising, they are not skill, accuracy or marksmanship. The key words are “power,” “speed” and “firepower.”

  • If you visit ranges where informal shooting is taking place, note the range users’ preference for centerfire rifles and pistols, often large calibers. You may observe that many shooters seem to prefer rapid firing. Whether we call this a “Rambo factor” in America’s informal shooting or recognize it as a popularity trend, it is a reality which must be recognized in range planning and management.

  • A majority of range use in this country stresses what we call “plinking.” There is a preference for targets that fall, break or do something.

  • Range shooting in this country is often not as disciplined as it could be. Whether it is from poor marksmanship or an unthinking attraction to targets that break or an occasional lack of responsibility, many shots fired on ranges do not hit the targets or anticipated impact areas and things like target frames or holders often are quickly damaged. A painted indoor range or baffled outdoor range will soon reveal bullet impact marks from numerous shots which obviously were not directed at the target.

  • The implications of these shooting preferences for range planning and management are apparent. The demand for range use won’t be satisfied by air guns or rimfire guns alone. Ranges must accommodate highpower rifles and pistols. And range operators must not assume that all range users will have the discipline, control or marksmanship skill to keep their shots on the targets.95

The “Rambo factor” not only affects the users of the shooting range. It also raises concerns for the range’s neighbors. One reasonable source of concern is that, as noted in the preceding section, the industry itself has found that most ranges are not professionally managed. The lack of professional management leads one naturally to wonder exactly who at those ranges is capable of dealing with shooters who, in Anderson’s words, do not have “the discipline, control or marksmanship skill to keep their shots on the targets.” Cutting corners is serious business in the case of shooting ranges, because—in the words of R. Max Peterson, executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies—shooting ranges “can be dangerous if improperly operated or maintained.”96

It is small wonder that “successful range operations face a formidable public relations challenge.”97 Bullets that don’t land in what Anderson delicately calls the “anticipated impact area” on the range can end up in an unanticipatedimpact area off the range—such as in a neighbor’s house or head. “Many ranges operate today knowing a single projectile or a shot charge landing off the range property means closure,” federal Fish & Wildlife Service deputy direct Conley Moffett told a tax-funded industry symposium.98 News accounts from all over the country confirm that stray bullets from shooting ranges are not merely theoretical concerns but real problems for nearby residents.99

The “Rambo factor” also creates friction between hunters and non-hunting shooters at public ranges, as Peter S. Duncan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, told the symposium: 

The non-hunting segments of the shooting public are using game land ranges in greater numbers, bringing with them semiautomatic pistols and rifles (which are not legal for hunting but are certainly legal to possess). In taking advantage of these free range facilities, these folks often monopolize the shooting points for hours at a time…we are more concerned about the apparent conflicts between the hunting and non-hunting users of our game land facilities.100

In plainer English, the would-be Rambos are pushing the hunters off of shooting ranges.q

Another NRA official, William L. Poole, director of the NRA’s division of recreational shooting, training and ranges, told a shooting range symposium about a special kind of management problem with sporting clays ranges: 

In working with ranges, probably the top problems that we encounter in the NRA Range Development Department are environmental and sound problems at sporting clays courses. There is not enough consideration given to the necessary design. We’re finding courses that are dropping shot on other people’s property; that have given no consideration to where the broken birds go; that drop shot into an open waterway. In general there seems to be a prevailing attitude that you can walk into a woods, set up some trap machines, and have a sporting clays course.101

The nonchalance of that “prevailing attitude” toward non-shooters is reflected in other problems documented in many shooting ranges. 

Slob Shooters—Vandalism, Litter, and Trashing of Outdoor Areas

U.S. Forest Service officials report that use of public outdoor firing ranges in national parks brings with it “unsafe acts, illegal weapons and ammunition, litter and destruction of property and signs.”102

The NRA’s Anderson unintentionally confirmed what many critics of the “shooting sports” argue—that so-called “recreational shooters” are often little more than reckless vandals who threaten the lives of others, even at shooting ranges. Says Anderson: 

There are unfortunately a small minority of gun uses which are not responsible and which lead to a serious negative image for legitimate, safe range uses. [emphasis in original] 

  • A trip through the rural areas of our country will almost always reveal a distressingly large number of road signs with bullet holes or shotgun patterns on them.

  • National Forest managers in the Los Angeles area have considered closing their forests to any public shooting because too many people bring in junk which they riddle with bullet holes and leave as dangerous litter.

  • A few weeks ago, an NRA police school and its shooting training which was conducted on a controlled, baffled range, was accused of being responsible for a bullet which struck a woman in a passing car over one-half mile from the range, even though it is almost certain that the stray bullet came from a plinker who didn’t bother to find a safe backstop.

  • These lamentable occurrences of vandalism with guns establish a critical element in the socio-political climate for ranges and have two important implications. One is that as long as this kind of irresponsible gun use goes on, it will be difficult to win public acceptance of ranges, because the public won’t understand that ranges can be safe. The second implication is that the best way to stop these irresponsible gun uses is to get as many informal shooting activities as possible onto ranges where guns can be used in a safe physical environment under the discipline of responsible range-use rules.103

But, with respect to Anderson’s last point (getting more shooting activities onto “safe” ranges), one is reminded of his earlier lamentation—quoted earlier—that because of “poor marksmanship or an unthinking attraction to targets that break or an occasional lack of responsibility, many shots fired on ranges do not hit the targets or anticipated impact areas” even at shooting ranges!

Examples of shooter abuse on both open land and public shooting ranges abound. David E. Wickstrom, a recreation planner from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, told a shooting range symposium: “Open areas available for shooting, such as gravel pits, often become littered with refuse left from use.”104

He described the situation mildly. In 1992, American Rifleman carried a detailed account entitled: “Gross abuse of a public shooting area by slobs with firearms forced its closing.”105 Although the gun industry likes to publicly portray gun owners as uniformly responsible citizens with only a few “bad apples,” the author, a federal Bureau of Land Management official wrote that “we estimated that somewhere between 30% and 40% of the apples were bad.” Because the agency could not afford to station an employee at the range, wrote the official, “we trusted the good sense and ethical standards of the shooting public. We were very disappointed by the result.” Among the problems observed were the following: 

It very quickly became apparent that not all shooters understood the safe handling of firearms and were not true believers in law and order. As examples, I personally observed two young men set down their beers as they passed a loaded and cocked pistol back and forth to take turns shooting. Automatic weapons fire has been reported regularly….Fires have been started by people using illegal tracer bullets…. 

It was also apparent that there was not much sensitivity to the environment. Citizens concerned about our environment do not shoot car batteries so that the acid runs into stream beds.106

The U.S. Forest Service has suffered similar experiences at the hands of shooters. Until 1988, target ranges were unwelcome in national forests “due to problems of littering, safety, and administration,” according to John Shilling, chief of concessions and winter sports, speaking at a 1990 range symposium. “Current policy allows target ranges only when and where they will enhance forest management by consolidating shooting activities, thereby reducing vandalism and litter associated with dispersed target shooting.”107

In plain English, Forest Service policy is to tolerate a shooting range only when shooters become so obnoxious that putting them all in one place makes more sense than letting them destroy the forest. 

Shilling cited the example of Forest Service experience at the Angeles National Forest in southern California. Originally, shooters were allowed to shoot anywhere in the forest, so long as they “followed guidelines such as distance from structures and places of habitation.” But slob shooters got out of control under the “open shooting” policy: 

Conflicts with other recreationists and danger of starting forest fires created an unacceptable situation. Shooting areas were designated to control the activity, but these areas quickly became dumps, collecting debris used for targets, old car bodies and at least one murder victim…. 

[T]hree to four fires a year occurred as a result of shooting activity, including one which burned 700 acres….108

In order to save the forest from the shooters, the Forest Service eventually allowed a commercial operator to open a public range and banned all open shooting in that forest. Fires caused by shooters were also a problem in the Cleveland National Forest in southern California, a Forest Service representative told a national shooting range symposium,109 and fires at open shooting areas continue to be a problem in other forest areas.110

Forest Service official Jerry W. Davis described the kinds of “misuse and abuse” of firearms he has seen, and their effects on the environment and the public at the same symposium: 

These have varied from signs, mailboxes, cans, bottles, and the first illegal deer or other form of wildlife encountered afield, to Saguaro cactus in the deserts of Arizona and pine trees in the forests of East Texas. Something seemingly as innocent as using a loblolly pine as a backstop for a target has caused tree mortality and insect infestations that killed hundreds of trees. This action has led to the loss of revenue to counties, schools, local economy, and the national treasury, as well as habitat loss for some species of wildlife.111

But closing open lands and forcing shooters onto ranges is expensive and brings other problems. Lyle Laverty, director of recreation, heritage, and wilderness resources for the federal Forest Service, told the symposium: 

A big problem that forest officers are facing is junk and hazardous materials left scattered around national forest shooting ranges. It’s not just a small problem; it’s a major problem. At Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles, you can find car parts, car bodies, anything that is dragged out there that people can shoot at. It just becomes a tremendous problem for the Forest Service managers to take care of…. 

One problem is that even though the district has a lot of volunteer help to pick up the trash, the dump fees are costing the district 50 percent of their recreation budget.112

Vandals at Forest Service shooting ranges “shoot signs, displays, roofs, toilets, garbage containers, and posts,” Laverty’s colleague, Davis, told the same group. “They litter and have been known to use wooden shooting benches for firewood.”113

State officials have similar problems maintaining public ranges. Pennsylvania state land management officials described how some shooting ranges literally become garbage dumps: 

Not unlike many other states, we also have some problems maintaining shooting ranges….The maintenance problems for these ranges are compounded by the large amount of litter that is often left behind by the users. An additional problem is how do we dispose of this litter. As the solid waste problem becomes more acute and the average family is less able to afford the costs of proper waste disposal, the ranges are increasingly being used for such purposes.114

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks had to overhaul a free outdoor range under similar circumstances. According to an official, the lack of a range officer at the range led aficionados of the “shooting sports” to engage in the following family fun: 

We hauled out 10 cubic yards of trash after Thanksgiving weekend. People were shooting at car batteries, bowling balls, bowling pins, stuffed animals, a TV set. They’d get garbage from the trash bin to use as targets and leave it out there. It wasn’t very safe.115

NRA official William L. Poole described the destruction that can be wreaked by a sporting clays shotgun course in a wooded environment: 

I think if you plan it well enough, you won’t shoot up any more trees than you have to, and many trees recover from being shot if you move the station around. You just can’t shoot the trees to pieces. I have seen courses where the same shot was presented year after year; it actually looked like a forest fire or a nuclear blast had occurred. With just a little bit of effort, you can move that shooting station and not relentlessly fire on the same tree. Pines do not hold up well. You’ll find that they go very quickly, so I’d move the course away from them. Some hardwood trees will really take a lot, but eventually, if you keep it up, you’ll destroy the tree.116

Vandalism often sets in when ranges open to the shooting public are not staffed, or are understaffed. For example, public ranges often depend on volunteer help. But when volunteer interest fades, vandalism and other problems follow, as Nebraska state officials described at a range symposium: 

Like many other new projects, this one received lots of tender, loving care in its early years. But, as the years went on, interest waned and management problems grew. The once-enthusiastic volunteer help became bored, and use of the facility dropped along with maintenance. 

Today, the trap range sees occasional use. The rifle range is accessible to anyone but no one oversees its use or attends to maintenance. Consequently, the target area is littered with junk which is scrounged or brought onto the area for use as target material.117

The message for local communities is that the nice, orderly range down the street has the potential of turning into a dangerous eyesore as soon as its users get tired of their new tax-funded toy. Not incidentally, the use of volunteers may also open ranges up to tort liability, if the range fails to check the background of its volunteers and harm results from allowing unsuitable persons to operate the range such as, for example, a “person of violent disposition.”118

In short, public land managers are caught between two evils. If they allow so-called “open shooting” on public land, “slob shooters” often abuse the trust extended them by vandalizing public property, littering, and even dumping garbage and hazardous waste. On the other hand, corralling such shooters onto a shooting range imposes operating and liability costs on the taxpayer, simply to indulge (and control) these reckless gunslingers.

Noise Pollution

Zoning violations and the high levels of noise inherent in shooting range operations cause the majority of complaints about them, according to the NRA’s general counsel.119 Many shooting ranges have been involved in “costly litigation” and some have closed because neighbors objected to noise, especially during early morning or late hours.120

“Noise continues to be a major concern on our project and unless your project is built in a vacuum it will be on yours,” Michigan state officials Bruce Gustafson and James Dabb told a shooting range symposium. “Persons living in proximity to the proposed site invariably are concerned with the potential disturbances to their ‘quiet’ neighborhood.”121

According to the NRA’s Range Manual, a comprehensive technical guide for designing and constructing shooting ranges: “No set distance eliminates noise complaints entirely.”122 The manual, which devotes an entire chapter to the subject of noise pollution, generally recommends allowing a “maximum distance between the range and inhabited dwellings,” and “where it is possible to do so, build a range on government-owned land that will generally have the advantage of noise buffer areas.” The manual suggests a distance between homes and range of at least one half mile for ranges generally, and three quarters of a mile for trap and skeet ranges (where shotguns are used). “Controlling sounds coming from shotgun facilities is almost impossible,” according to the director of the Delaware State Division of Fish and Wildlife, paraphrasing advice he got from the NRA on the problem.123

What might be called the “ostrich approach” to shooting range noise was urged on a range symposium by NRA official William L. Poole: 

I recommend that rather than using the term noise, you should use the term sound. Anytime you talk about what happens when the trigger of a firearm is pulled, that audible tone that comes from the firearm, you should talk about it as sound rather than noise. Noise has a bad connotation to it. Sound is more generally acceptable.124

On-Range Hazards—Suicides, Murders, and Unintentional Deaths

Another problem that the gun industry doesn’t like to talk about is people killing each other (and themselves) at shooting ranges. For example, former U.S. Congressman and NRA board member Harold L. Volkmer painted a rosy picture of range safety in his address to the first shooting range symposium (for which he was paid a $1,000 honorarium).125 Volkmer said “the use of shooting ranges takes the danger that arises from inexperience out of the picture.”126

But in a 1994 article, Shooting Industry writer Ross Thurman offered a considerably different expert opinion on the safety of shooting ranges: 

Unfortunately, I’ve found most safety standards at shooting ranges to be extremely casual. On a number of occasions, I’ve cut short a range visit because of how carelessly other shooters handled firearms.127

Thurman’s account is not an isolated example. A reader of Guns & Ammo wrote a letter to the magazine in 1986 to describe “a situation that was unbelievable” at a shooting range: 

[A] person entered the shooting stall next to mine. He proceeded to take a brand-new handgun from its box and make a very futile attempt to load it. He started loading his ammo in the magazine backward. I offered my assistance, for which he was very grateful. He informed me that he had just purchased the gun (an S&W 639) and did not know anything about it or handguns in general…. 

I was so concerned by this situation that I took a small, informal survey over a month or so when I visited the range and found that 80 percent of the shooters that came to the range were there for the first time, had just recently purchased a firearm and did not know anything about the firearm or firearm safety.128

The president of a New Jersey insurance company summarized the type of insurance claims filed against shooting ranges. These included eye injuries to shooters and spectators, often caused by ricochets; persons shooting themselves unintentionally; death from fire caused by muzzle flash igniting foam insulation; suicides; and, injury from an exploding handgun.129 News accounts from all over the country again confirm that suicides,130 unintentional shootings,131 and even murders,132 occur with depressing frequency at shooting ranges (often involving handguns rented at the range itself). 

Lawyer Anne Kimball told participants at a shooting range symposium that “it may be advisable to require all range users to have passed an NRA instruction program.”133 But there is little evidence that many public shooting ranges impose even such a basic standard of care and prudence on paying customers. 

William L. Poole, director of the NRA’s division of recreational shooting, training, and ranges, described at a shooting range symposium the apparently widespread negligence by shotgunners. Musing on the duties of “pullers” (the people who release targets at trap and skeet shotgun ranges) Poole said: 

The pullers, of course, should know the safety rules. Shotgun shooters can be negligent. As a matter of fact, I was looking at a shotgun this morning down on the airgun range and set the darned thing on the end of my toe with the barrels closed. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s a force of habit after 30 years and one I’m trying to give up. I knew the gun wasn’t loaded, and that’s not a good excuse at all, but you’re going to see that happen on a daily basis. If you’re not familiar with the way trap and skeet shooters act, that’s just a part of their mannerisms. It’s very difficult to make a safety monitor out of a 15-year-old kid [the puller]….134 [emphasis added] 

Other problems include whether fully automatic weapons should be allowed at public ranges. Missouri found itself at odds with the NRA when a proposal was floated to ban machine guns from ranges on the grounds that they destroyed target stands and unnerved other shooters.135 (The NRA opposes restrictions on private ownership of machine guns.)136 Ranges also often bring increased traffic problems to nearby neighborhoods, with the associated noise and congestion.137

q) It should also be noted that Duncan’s remarks further undermine the “hunter safety” rationale that the industry uses as its excuse for siphoning federal tax funds into shooting ranges. By his account “non-hunting users” dominate the use of many ranges.

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